Walking out of the vice-principal’s office, politely but firmly rejected, I felt immensely frustrated. This was a sad, close-minded attitude for an educational institute to adopt. Visiting students, curious persons, anyone seeking to inquire or converse productively about relevant topics should be welcomed at colleges and universities. At this school of higher education in Mumbai, however, I had found the barriers insurmountable. I wasn’t exactly escorted off campus, but I may as well have been.
They are certainly situations and scenarios where visitors are not appropriate. And concerns about the security of the students and facilities — and the visitors themselves — understandably take priority. But these were not the reasons for which I had been asked to leave. This was a bureaucratic monster, a product of a culture of schooling that India desperately needs to overcome.
There is a problem
A few weeks earlier I had attended the India Strategy Forum in New Delhi. The event was organized by think tank Institute for Strategy and was a meeting of minds from one point of broad agreement was that Indian business needs to foster a spirit of innovation and originality, not just technical excellence. Panelists and attendees agreed that one important step toward this goal was to instill practices of independent creative thinking in schools — secondary schools and higher education — and by encouraging a more creative culture and environment at Indian businesses.
Original, independent and creative thinking: the stereotype about India seems to be that it is rare to find people who have possess these things or value them in others. The emphasis has always been on discipline, hard work, technical knowledge, and on analytical thinking. Indian students are often thought to be masters of rote learning, with all of the negative connotations that come with that.
How is it that a country with such a rich history of invention, unique thought, and open-mindedness has ended up the target of such preconceptions?
While i was traveling for several weeks around India, I went out of my way to visit educational institutes. Some visits, like the one I already described, were utter failures. Others were amazing. One of the most interesting was my trip to the IIT in Delhi.
The Indian Institutes of Technology, for those that don’t already know, are regarded as one of the top educational programs in the world. There is a joke that students in India who can’t get into the IITs go to MIT instead. The IITs also suffer intense criticism, about everything from imbalanced sex ratios to high suicide rates.
My cousin Rishi, at the time a student at the IIT Delhi, has a powerful entrepreneurial spirit. He takes initiative to pursue his own projects. He is technical and creative and business minded. So I was particularly excited to meet him, see his campus, and meet his fellow students.
[Unfortunately, I never managed to talk to any female students at the IIT.]
One of the students, a PhD student in the hard sciences, revealed his frustrations to me. He had had some freedom in selecting his discipline and area of research, essentially choosing his programme and professor. From there, however, his professor told him what to do and when. His said his thesis was essentially chosen for him, as was how to write it. Goals, deadlines, experiments and reading materials, were all dictated by his professor. He was painfully aware of how different his experience was from his counterparts in the US. The difference, he told me, was choice. He made no decisions on his own, he just did.
He confessed that he didn’t feel equipped to make significant decisions. He’d never had to do that kind of thing before. So there was some sort of understanding that the professors just had to do these things for him. There simply wasn’t sufficient time and resources to waste on bad decisions. In a way, he said, the professors were as trapped as he was.
Later, someone brought up a similar idea. Competition in the Indian education system is fierce. Self-initiative means making mistakes and learning from them. But a mistake can cause one to lose time, or a grade, or class ranking. Within the current system, that risk simply isn’t worth it.
Like many Indians, I take pride in the Indian mind and its achievements, both recent and historical. I am outsider, having spent little time within the Indian educational system. But from my perspective, it seems that there is a problem. And that the problem appears to be deep rooted. Perhaps even cultural.
Call me an optimist, but…
Call me an optimist, but India has shown time and again that it is capable of rapid, radical change. It seems to be that the ingredients are in place for such a change in this aspect of the education system. The new generations of students are more aware. They have many channels of learning outside the schools that they attend. And they’re simply not going to put up with it.
From the opposite front, there is a lot of pressure for change from businesses. Like many who have worked with Indian “offshore” teams in business process or technical outsourcing, it is clear that the experience today is very different from what it was just a few years ago. There is still has a long ways to go, but businesses will demand an ever higher level of thinking, and this economy provides an important incentive for systemic change.
I don’t know what that change will look like, but I’m excited to see it. Will it be a subtle change in attitude, a major change in curriculum, or something else entirely? How will it fit in with — or distinguish itself from — the push for education reform in other parts of the world?